Adios Mi Abuelo
Posted: Apr 21, 2010 4:05pm ET
I have been thinking a lot about Alejandro Robaina, the late great tobacco grower of Cuba. It’s hard to think about the 91-year-old no longer being there. He died of cancer last Saturday at home in his bed, and I can’t bear the thought of him not being on his farm, sitting on his terrace in his rocking chair and holding court with a cigar in his hand.
I don’t exactly remember when I met him, but it has to be close to 20 years ago. I first saw him on a trip to Pinar del Río in the early 1990s at the beginning of Cigar Aficionado magazine. Some representatives of Cubatabaco, the name then for the global distribution company for Cuban cigars, Habanos S.A., took me to his small farm to show me what an independent tobacco grower on the island was like.
I couldn’t believe how welcoming he was with his wife, sister, brother and children all living on the farm. They all lived in a couple of block-like houses of four bedrooms around the perimeter of the building and a simple sitting room and kitchen in the center. There were no glass windows, just shutters. And they had one lone light bulb hanging from the sitting room and one in the kitchen. I remember the bathroom didn’t have warm water and toilet paper and their toothbrushes were frayed like steel wool from years of use. Sometimes there was no soap as well.
I think you get the idea. It was a very simple life as a farmer in Pinar del Río. “It’s difficult,” he would say. “But we do the best we can.”
Yet Alejandro was so warm, friendly, and generous. I felt a little guilty back then coming for lunch, as he and his family would serve a hearty meal of roasted chicken, fried pork, crunchy green banana slices, rice, black beans, and tomatoes. It all came from their farm. It was some of the best food I ever ate in my life–full of flavor and affection.
He loved to talk about tobacco before, during and after lunch. How it was farmed. How it grew. How it was cured. And he loved smoking and talking about how particular cigars smoked. I learned so much from him about everything that had to do with tobacco and cigars. He always said that tobacco was like a beautiful woman. “If you didn’t treat it gently, with love and care, you would ruin her.”
He used to always show me his prized possession—a mechanical gramophone. He used to play some vinyl records from the 1940s and 1950s, such as Benny Moré or other Cuban musicians from the period. A scratchy, muffled sound came from the mechanical record player’s funnel-like speaker. “They don’t make them like this anymore,” he would sweetly say.
Once in a while, I would stay overnight and we would talk into the late hours of the night smoking cigars and drinking Havana Club seven-year-old rum. The combination of the slightly warm rum and fascinating conversation would warm my soul. I feel good now writing about it. There were no lights outside on the porch, so we sat in the dark and talked with the moon dimly lighting our faces. We almost whispered as not to interrupt the music of the crickets and other sounds of the country night.
He insisted on giving me his room to sleep in. “You are part of the family now,” he said, with a smile. Once, I almost froze to death in his room because he had installed an air conditioner and it was on full throttle and he didn’t tell me how to turn it down. I told him that his room was like a meat locker. He almost fell out of his chair laughing when I told him. Alejandro continued to tease me about that to his last days!
I only had the chance to reciprocate his hospitality about ten years ago when he was on a promotional trip in Italy. I picked him up with his grandson Hiroshi in Milan, and they stayed at my home in Tuscany for three days. I organized a couple of dinners with friends. I took them around to different wines and farms and tourist sites. Hiroshi had his first “real” pizza at my local pizzeria and still talks about it today. At most of the dinners Hiroshi wore his gray suit, which I bought for him and brought to Cuba a few months before. It was his first suit.
They slept in a small apartment in my village that I rented for them. And one morning I walked up to the apartment and found them still asleep in their beds with no heat and in their clothes. They didn’t know how to turn on the heat. I didn’t realize that they wouldn’t because there is no central heating in most houses in Cuba.
I took Alejandro to visit a local peasant named Alvaro, and he was pleased to see the size and beauty of his two white cows and one bull in the stalls of his tiny farm. The Italian farmer pulled out some of his homemade moonshine, and we all got a little drunk. Alvaro and Alejandro were talking for a number of hours—Alejandro in Spanish and Alvaro in Italian—about farming and livestock and other affairs. “Next time I come to Italy I am going to stay with Alvaro,” he said with a smile. “We have a lot in common.”
I saw him a few months later in Pinar del Río and he had the biggest smile on his face. He said that the Italian trip was one of his best ever. I think it was the same year that I went to Düsseldorf and cigar merchant Christopher Wolters organized some events for the tobacco man at his parent’s hotel and cigar shop. It was then I realized that Alejandro couldn’t see. His cataracts had gotten so bad that he had no vision.
By that time, Alejandro seemed to be flying around the world to different dinners, smokers and story openings. I couldn’t keep track where he was: Madrid, Mexico City, Hong Kong and the rest. He always wanted to visit America. I used to joke at the time that Cuba now had three icons: Fidel Castro, musician Compay Segundo of Buena Vista Social Club and Alejandro Robaina. Alas, the last two are no longer with us.
I have many more stories of Alejandro and our conversations, but my fingers are a little tired from the emotion of writing some of them for you. I can tell you that I am going to miss mi abuelo Cubano—my Cuban grandfather. I know that his farm is in good hands with his son Carlos and grandson Hiroshi, but it’s not going to be the same to go back to his beautiful tobacco farm in the heart of Pinar del Río. In fact, life will never be the same.
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